Everybody is afraid to talk politics in the coffee bar. The man sitting down opposite our table had heard that I was interested in talking about freedom and politics in post-independence Eritrea. Eritrea was liberated from Ethiopia some 15 years ago in 1991. Some of the people whom I spoke to were friendly but frightened in case someone from the state security heard them. Others were very suspicious of me. I do not know why they felt that way. I felt like a stranger in my native country.
Even the person I was talking to was also very scared because Eritrea is a police state and it is not uncommon to be arrested and imprisoned without any trial. There is no rule of law in Eritrea and if you are imprisoned you will be there most likely until you rot. It is even worse than the Dergue in Ethiopia. The people I approached to talk to did not like my questions. The social interaction between the government and the people is getting worse; the people are living under siege.
Outside the coffee bar, as I was going back to my place, I saw many kids walking on the street without any adult accompanying them. Nearly half of Eritrean population are children. Millions are orphans. They are economically very active and most of them work more hours than a full-time adult worker. They look after their little brothers and sisters; sometimes even their mothers. The majority of the children who live in the towns and cities are fatherless - their fathers killed in conflict. The government does not give out any money to these orphans. The kids are dependent on the goods they sell. But the police are not very kind to them. The police can often be found rounding up homeless kids in the capital. Any young adults who appear to be above 16 years old are also rounded up for conscription into the national service scheme (Sawa), which is compulsory for every Eritrean one they reach the age of eighteen.
Most children help themselves and their mothers by selling lottery tickets, tissues, chewing gum, and cigarettes and also by working as shoe-shine boys. The situation is desperate as there’s no help from the government or any other charity organisations. Some young girls are forced to sell their bodies for cash.
The Eritrean government doesn't accept any kind of charity from the donor countries. They adopted the system of self-reliance even when they were guerrillas during the war for freedom from Ethiopia. Today, no NGO is welcome into Eritrea; the government is very suspicious of any foreign aid. At the moment Eritrea is suffering from economic and political uncertainty. Many Eritreans are now living behind bars. The arbitrary detention by the government is common in every part of Eritrea. No one between 18 and 40 years is allowed to move from one place to another without an ID card.
Eritrea is the only country in the world that doesn't have any independent newspapers and no freedom of expression. For the last three years the Asmara University has been closed bringing higher education to a standstill. More than 30,000 students have been migrated to neighbouring countries, the majority of them to Ethiopia.
Thousands of people are arrested on suspicion of evading military conscription and held at Adi Abeto army prison. Conditions in this military holding centre are harsh, with severe overcrowding, little food and appalling sanitary conditions. Many detainees have reportedly been forced to sleep outside in very cold weather, with no blankets or shoes. Prisoners have no access either to their families or to lawyers; my cousin Mengisteab is one of them. Such unfortunates are thought to be at the risk of torture and ill treatment. Many prisoners have reportedly been shot dead. Eritrean security forces in the capital, Asmara, indiscriminately arrest thousands of youths and others suspected of evading military conscription. The arrests take place in the streets, shops and offices, at roadblocks and in houses.
From the days of the war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), national service has become full military service and has been extended indefinitely. Those who completed national service and pre-independence fighters are subject to recall as reservists or on special duties.
There is no exemption for conscientious objectors. Many young people have tried to evade military service and thousands have fled the country or deserted after being conscripted. The usual punishment for evading or escaping from military service is torture by beatings, being tied in painful contorted positions for days and indefinite detention without trial or charge. The pathetic irony it that for the millions of underprivileged in Eritrea, it is not enough that they live lives of abject misery – the government insists that they must defend with their lives their right to live in such wretchedness.